Around a hundred people walked out of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built at its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes on Monday night. The Danish filmmaker is used to this sort of outrage, having been declared “persona non grata” at the festival in 2011 for expressing sympathy with Hitler. Reviews of the film, which is structured like a therapy session in which the titular serial killer (Matt Dillon) recalls several “randomly chosen” incidents, have been, for the most part, a parade of condemnation. But House does have its champions.
Coming down hardest on von Trier, and with eloquent and clear-eyed ferocity, is Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. She establishes herself as “a fan of many of his previous films,” but this one, she argues, is “a kind of Human Centipede ass-to-mouth concertina of gruesome misogyny and utter tedium.” Slapping House with an “F,” she adds a P.S. to “the first #filmbrodude” to come along with an all too predictable response to her review.
The Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri isn’t so much angry as he is disappointed. House is, “effectively, the closest von Trier has gotten to a memoir,” but “in the past von Trier has managed to take these symbols, victims, and martyrs and find ways to depict them movingly onscreen. Indeed, what has resonated over the years in von Trier’s work is this very dance between sadism and humanism. Now that he’s turned the camera on himself, however, that humanism appears to be gone, which ironically leaves the sadism itself empty, void of emotion and meaning.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Kiang is Blake Williams, who argues that House is “a film I have quite a bit of confidence and trepidation in declaring a masterpiece.” Further into his dispatch to Filmmaker, he writes: “That von Trier should wear his pathologies on [his] sleeve is neither new nor particularly interesting in itself; that he is able to exhibit such a clear-eyed vantage of his doomed, self-destructive existence in a way that manages to be wrenching, sublime, and never redemptive, is miraculous.”
At Cineuropa, Jan Lumholdt asks von Trier himself what he thinks of this first round of critical reception. It “seemed just about right, I think,” von Trier replies. “In any case, this one was a pleasure to write. I don’t know too much about serial killers, but I do know a bit about psychopaths. And I’ve never killed anyone myself. . . . If I do, it will probably be a journalist.”
And writing for the Daily Beast, Richard Porton, an editor at Cineaste, takes on the question, “How did von Trier go from being one of the most respected art house directors of the early twenty-first century to a near-pariah in the film community?”